Flat is Beautiful III - Flounder - Recap

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Alton starts in dark suit on dark stage. There he contemplates the idea of foods that aren’t quite three dimensional – foods like pizza, flank steak and pancakes. These flat foods rarely extend to an entire animal but there is an exception – the flatfish. Flatfish form an order called pleuronectiformes, meaning “side swimmers.” They lurk just beneath the sea floor where they can evade predators as well as nabbing the occasional meal that floats or swims by. Most of its activity is burst swimming so its muscles are chiefly of the fast twitch variety, finely textured, flaky and mildly flavored. This is especially true of flounder, a large canvas on which even moderately skilled cooks can create a myriad of designs. Flounder is widely available, versatile and clearly... Good Eats!

The five hundred or so species of flatfish in Order Pleuronectiforms start their lives swimming upright like most other fish. Over time one of their eyes migrates to the other side of their head and they start to swim on their side. Whether they swim right side up, left side up, or randomly depends on the species. Some even have a chameleon like ability to alter their color to blend into the sea bed.

Alton visits “Lucky the Freakish Fishmonger” to find his flounder. Most of the fish sold by the vendor are the normal looking roundfish, but he does have some flatfish. He offers Alton Dover sole, black back flounder, grey sole, lemon sole, and petrale sole. And the Dover sole was caught in American waters! Too bad Alton knows that real Dover sole is only caught around England. And that grey sole, lemon sole and petrale sole are marketing names for flounder. Caught, the fishmonger pulls down a mirror ball and says he thought Alton meant “soul” as in Soullllllllll Train! Alton does finally find some flounder, and briefly comments about turbot and halibut. Halibut grow so large that Alton does not consider them a flatfish for cooking purposes. Even on their side they can be inches thick because they can get to be feet long. As for Dover sole, well, most that comes to this country winds up in restaurants. For those who don’t want to do the work flatfish is often sold as half fillets and quarter fillets. Alton buys a whole fish.

To dismantle a fish one must have a good boning knife. Realizing that fishermen commonly clean their catch right there on the pier Alton finds an angler and studies the tackle box. Yep, there are a lot of knives in there. He asks the angler for the information... it’s “W!” Seems she can’t even avoid Alton when she’s on vacation...

W tells Alton that what he needs is a good boning knife. It should have a curved tip to ease maneuvering around bones. A flexible knife maneuvers better but is harder to use competently. She recommends a six inch stiff knife and further comments that the best and cheapest such knifes are usually those made for the food service industry, with stamped blades and plastic handles. As Alton takes the offered knife he drops W’s fishing pole into the water. A stern stare is her only answer, and Alton goes into the drink after it.

Back in the kitchen Alton demonstrates how to dismantle a flounder. First he assembles his tools. He puts a flexible cutting board next to the sink because running water is useful for rinsing away fish scales. He sets a trash bowl nearby and prepares his honing steel, knife, a towel and some gloves. He arranges his fish with head to the right because he is right handed. Then he cuts diagonally from shoulder to belly; this diagonal cut misses the guts of the fish. He continues along the belly to the tail, unzipping the skin. Then he “floats” the boning knife over the ribs to peel off the fillet. Taking the tip along the spine he works the knife under the other set of ribs and lifts the meat away. Then he repeats on the other side. To remove the skin he starts by cutting away the frills (base of the fins) and then works the knife under the skin at the tail and pulls the fillet towards him. Pulling the fillet works better than pushing the knife because it maintains tension. With some practice the skin comes off in one piece.

To store fish, even in the chill chest, put them on ice. To achieve this and avoid waterlogged meat Alton builds a double storage bin. The inner bin has holes and telescopes into the outer bin. As the ice melts the water drips into the outer bin and away from the fish.

A flat, then and flexible thing like this fillet works well wrapped around something else so that’s what Alton plans for his fillet. He starts with a little butter in a skillet, then adds onion and a pinch of salt. The idea is to sweat the onion. In a saucepan Alton starts a sauce with some heavy cream and a little white wine, then brings that to medium heat to simmer. Back at the skillet he adds garlic to the sweat and cooks for a minute before returning to the sauce. When the sauce bubbles he adds cheddar cheese and whisks continuously to avoid lumps. When he adds the last of the cheese he turns off the heat.

Returning to the onion/garlic sweat, Alton turns it into a stuffing by adding some frozen spinach (thawed and well drained), some lemon zest, chopped parsley, kosher salt, black pepper. Then he kills the sweat and lets residual heat take over. He returns to the sauce long enough to give it a good stir.

It’s time for the fillets. Alton seasons them with salt and pepper, then spoons the spinach filling onto the widest part of the fillet. He rolls with a twist to enclose as much of the filling as possible and then sets the rolls upside down in the pan. He cautions viewers that some filling will escape. He pours the cheese sauce over the top – it won’t quite cover the fillets but it should come close – and slides the fillets into a 350º oven for a little less than half an hour. When its done he lets it rest for five minutes. It’s delicious, but Alton notices that much of the tasty cheese sauce remains in the pan. Quickly rewinding (isn’t television great) he puts cooked white rice into the bottom of the pan before setting the fillet rolls in and pouring the cheese sauce on top. Ah, that’s better – the rice captures the cheese sauce!

Considering poached fish, Alton realizes they can be overcooked easily because they are so lean. To solve this problem he poaches his fish in oil. Oil and water don’t mix (who doesn’t remember that truism) so oil won’t encourage water to leave the fish. Oil has a moist mouth feel so it will forgive slight overcooking, giving room for error. Finally, oil carries many flavors into the fish.

Alton starts with a quantity of olive oil over low heat. He brings the oil to about 300º over low heat. While it heats he seasons his flounder with salt and pepper, flips it and seasons again. Then he arranges lemon slices on an iron skillet – yes, iron is reactive, but the skillet has a good seasoning on it and will withstand a brief exposure. On top of the lemons Alton arrays parsley, then the fish, then more lemons and more parsley. He slides the pan onto an oven self and then pours the hot oil over the fish before sliding the shelf into the 350º oven. This method minimizes the need to move the hot oil in the wide and shallow skillet – a potentially hazardous task.

When the fish is done Alton removes the pan and allows the fish to rest briefly, then uses a fish spatula to remove it from the pan. This special long spatula helps prevent breaking up (which in this case is very easy to do). Because the oil hasn’t been heated excessively it may be reused. Alton filters his through cheesecloth into an old wine bottle for storage.

For that leftover poached flounder, Alton proposes a salad. He starts by building a vinegrette from (naturally) vinegar ad a little lime juice. Into that he mixes a little kosher salt, black pepper and hot sauce, then whisks it smooth. He drizzles in some of the leftover poaching oil, then folds in about a pound of the poached fillet, some of the lemons from the poaching (diced), chopped parsley and scallions. This will keep for a couple of days in the chill chest. Alton devours his before it can get there, with crackers.

Back in the darkened realm of two dimensional food Alton notes that the flounder is properly two dimensional, it need not be pounded or pressed. But what it lacks in depth it more than makes up in flavor.